Secret Documents Released: Reading Room Established for Material Obtained from USDA through Federal Lawsuits
The Cornucopia Institute has delivered to the USDA more than 5,000 individually signed letters from farmers and consumers calling for new management of the National Organic Program (NOP). The Wisconsin-based organic food and farm policy research group collected the letters from concerned organic advocates across the country.
“This is one more indication of the growing dissatisfaction with Deputy Administrator Miles McEvoy’s direction and oversight of the rapidly growing organic industry,” said Mark Kastel, who acts as Cornucopia’s Senior Farm Policy Analyst.
The Cornucopia Institute, along with many other public interest groups, has been highly critical of what they describe as a “corporate takeover” of the regulatory process that Congress designed specifically to protect organic rulemaking from the influence of agribusiness lobbyists.
“Under the direction of Deputy Administrator McEvoy the independence of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), an expert policy panel convened by Congress to act as a buffer between lobbyists, like the powerful Organic Trade Association, and USDA policymakers has been seriously undermined,” stated Dr. Barry Flamm, a Montana farmer, scientist, and past chairperson of the NOSB.
In the cover letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, the organization cited several areas where USDA management is failing. These include:
“We want organics to live up to the true meaning envisioned by the founders of this movement,” Kastel added. “For both organic farmers and organic consumers, that means sound environmental stewardship, humane animal husbandry, wholesome and nutritious food derived from excellent soil fertility, and economic justice for those who produce our food. The USDA needs to act to preserve consumer trust in the organic label.”
Due in part to the issues that Cornucopia is spotlighting, Consumer Reports has downgraded the credibility of the USDA organic label from its previous top-tier ranking.
“The corporations that are part of the Organic Trade Association, like Driscoll’s, General Mills (Cascadian Farms, Muir Glenn, Annie’s), WhiteWave (Horizon, Silk, Earthbound Farms, Wallaby) and Clif Bar, have the power to trade the credibility of the organic seal for short-term profit. The USDA needs to step in and protect the public,” Kastel stated.
The Cornucopia Institute is continuing to encourage organic stakeholders to join in this campaign by printing, signing, and returning a proxy letter, which can be accessed at https://www.cornucopia.org/2015/09/sign-the-proxy-letter-remove-current-usda-organic-management/.
Nine Lawsuits Filed over Secrecy and Alleged Violations of the Freedom of Information Act
Relatedly, Cornucopia has filed nine federal lawsuits against the USDA concerning the agency’s failure to comply with access to public records under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The documents are now housed on the Cornucopia website in its FOIA Reading Room for public viewing.
“We have, over the years, made FOIA requests to the USDA to learn more about organic fraud enforcement and better understand decision making on organic issues,” explained Will Fantle, Cornucopia’s Codirector.
Originally passed in 1966 and amended over the years, the Freedom of Information Act pushes the federal government towards transparency, compelling federal agencies to provide the public with documents and communications. The Obama administration had pledged to increase transparency, but they have been harshly criticized for their failure to do so by many civil society groups and transparency advocates.
Over the past several years Cornucopia’s FOIA requests have, the group contends, become increasingly meaningless. According to Fantle, the FOIA requests are characterized by years-long delays in response time, even though the government is legally bound to reply within 20 days. In addition, Cornucopia has found abuse of legal exceptions used by the USDA to essentially “black out” (redact) the majority of text before publicly sharing documents.
One of Cornucopia’s unanswered FOIAs dated from 2012. This request relates to a factory farm enforcement action taken by the USDA against Shamrock Dairy in Arizona. The Shamrock case was opened by the USDA in 2008 when Cornucopia filed a formal legal complaint alleging organic law violations, by milking conventional and organic cows in the desert with a modicum of required pasture land. Since filing a lawsuit in early 2016, Cornucopia has received, and is reviewing, almost 2,000 pages of documents related to this request.
While the USDA confirmed that Shamrock Dairy was milking thousands of cows in violation of the organic standards, and proposed sanctions against the operation and its certifier, Quality Assurance International (QAI), both organizations remain in the organic business today.
Cornucopia initially requested documents on the Shamrock scandal because the USDA failed to inform the public as to how they could legally allow this giant scofflaw to continue in operation.
“In a democracy, private citizens and public interest groups should not have to invest their money hiring lawyers to enforce their rights to documents that, by law, they are entitled to,” stated Fantle.
Cornucopia said it hopes the current administration will take action to correct the allegations of ethical improprieties and mismanagement at the National Organic Program, bringing in new management that respects Congress’s intent to protect the public when it passed the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.
The USDA’s McEvoy has stated they now have full-time staff responding to FOIA requests. In addition, since Cornucopia’s lawsuits are forcing the release of material that was illegally withheld, by law the USDA is responsible for paying Cornucopia’s legal fees for these cases as well. According to Cornucopia’s Kastel, “This is a raw deal for the taxpayers based on mismanagement and an illegal level of secrecy at the National Organic Program.”
Bowing to public pressure, the USDA has begun posting rudimentary material on their website. For example, they are now providing summaries of organic fraud actions. However, Cornucopia suggests that these postings appear to be little more than subterfuge, attempting to divert criticism about secrecy rather than truly informing the public. Cornucopia alleges that the enforcement material the USDA has made available leaves out basic and critical information, like the nature of the original allegations made against organic operations and what they were ultimately found in violation of.
The Cornucopia Institute has long contended that without the full details of these enforcement actions being made public, the power Congress gave the USDA to suspend and revoke organic certification, and to apply fines, cannot act as a deterrent as lawmakers intended.
“For a long time we have recommended to Mr. McEvoy, and the political appointees from the Obama administration running the USDA, that it would serve the public interest better, and save money, if they instead invested in a policy of openness, making documents readily available on their website for public inspection, instead of the legal charade they have been perpetrating,” Kastel lamented.